"Change We Can Believe In": The DC Sommelier Scene

"When I started my sommelier career in Washington, DC, I could count the number of exciting wine programs on one hand – and still have two fingers left. Only two restaurants employed sommeliers.  The scene was dominated by steakhouses and predictable wine lists. The dining public was dominated by politicians and lobbyists opting for the safety of the lowest common denominator. When a certain anti-business/pro-crack Mayor finally lost his grip on the city, DC began its renaissance: thousands of new residents, hundreds of new restaurants and a whole new attitude. Thirteen years later, DC now has a binder full of sommeliers who, not only create great wine experiences for their guests, they also contribute to a solid and supportive community of wine professionals, one that now extends to the Virginia suburbs and Baltimore, Maryland. They are creating dynamic and successful programs, sharing their unique passions, and earning distinction for themselves and their restaurants.

As significant as these changes have been, there are certain challenges, and the DC area’s wine revolution is a work in progress. This is still a socially conformist area, with an odd mix of Northern and Southern sensibilities that tends to resist new ideas. The Washington Post restaurant reviewer recently criticized a new wine bar’s list for being “too obscure” proving, to some, that is better to stick with the safest choices.  Like politicians (on both sides of the aisle), many restaurants still seem hesitant to take a stand. There are, even now, more pedestrian wine programs than there need to be.  The following sommeliers are leading by example, and with their contagious energy and passion. More wine professionals catch the bug every day, and this is a change we can believe in." 

-Kathy Morgan, MS

Featured below are six top Sommeliers and members of the Guild from DC and the surrounding area: Andrew Myers (CityZen Restaurant), Julie Dalton (Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons Baltimore), Matthew Carroll (Brabo Restaurant), David Denton (Charlie Palmer Steak), Jill Zimorski (formerly of Volt Restaurant), and John Wabeck (Society Fair)


What are some of the more unique American Wines, Beers, or Spirits that you are working with in your beverage program (especially stuff that is local or from the East Coast)?

Andy: I’m most excited about the killer beers from DC Brau. The Citizen Belgian Style Ale is killing it for us. It’s fun to pour canned beer at a five star property.

David: Wines from Virginia are really coming along in quality as we discover exactly what our terroir can do. When I first moved to the DC area in 2002, there were only a couple of wineries that were producing world-class wines, like Barboursville and Valhalla. Now there are several. A recent favorite is RdV, in Delaplane, VA: they make beautiful, Bordeaux-like red blends. With the right aspect, soil and varietals, Virginia can produce wines that I am proud to include on my wine list. 

John: I wish some of the science projects in Virginia would get ripped out and replanted with Petit Verdot. We’ve used Virginian Petit Verdot from Northgate Cellars by the glass, and our only chardonnay by the glass, Linden Hardscrabble, is from the state. Fantastic wine. We’ve poured RdV  “Rendezvous” by the glass for like $20. A lot of our spirits are from Virginia or West Virginia as well: Smooth Ambler Vodka, Cirrus Vodka, Wasmunds Whisky. Cardinal Gin from North Carolina. 

Julie: Hard to discuss local beers without giving huge props to Dogfish Head.  They’re based in Milton, Delaware and began brewing about 12 years ago in Rehoboth Beach. Punkin Ale is one of my faves, and we currently have their 60 Minute IPA and the Festina Peche on draught.  I think what makes them unique is how stylistically wide their offering is whilst retaining artisinality. They also give back: they organize a 5-K and 10-K run to raise money for The Nature Conservancy. 

Matthew: Foggy Ridge Ciders from Floyd County down in southern Virginia. Incredible British-style hard ciders that are a beautiful local alternative to starting a meal with sparkling wine.


When you elect to use a product in your beverage program, do you make the executive decision or do you take suggestions from your colleagues and staff?

David: I take suggestions from a variety of sources, including my co-workers and fellow sommeliers. There are an amazing number of great wines and spirits available in the DC market, and you never know when an offhand mention of a wine can turn you on to a new favorite. Ideally, my beverage program won't be a reflection of me and my tastes. That is too insular, and is not the best way to serve my guests. The program has to be reflective of a lot of people's tastes and preferences so that my guests have a wide variety of great choices.

Andy: It’s pretty much all me. Once in a while our bartender or one of the captains will ask for something in particular, but in general they seem to do their job and let me do mine.


What is your barometer for the guest experience?

John: It’s one thing for everyone to say they had a great time. Everyone says that. But did they? Were we perfect? For me, it’s the stuff that no one notices. Is the napkin refolded when the guest goes to the restroom?  Were we genuinely happy to see them? Did we pour tastes of wines that guests were unsure about? It’s the million little things that alone don’t mean much, but when added together mean a hell of a lot. 

Julie: Our entire team is always on high alert and is very sensitive in monitoring verbal and non-verbal cues from our guests during their experience. Post experience, our management team keeps the rest of us up to date with the Open Table and Yelp reviews. As much as we love to hate on Yelpers, they’re important. Being a Four Seasons property, the Guest Experience is the most important thing.  We will absolutely do whatever we can to make sure they come back and tell their friends.

Andy: For the most part humans are pretty easy to read. Particularly when they’re upset. As such, I tend to simply look them in the eye as I work the floor. If they’re cranked it’ll show. If they’re happy it’s likewise pretty easy to see. I’m lucky in that I have a great crew with me on the floor and it’s pretty rare for people to be upset at CityZen. Between the food and the wait staff we make the people happy more often than not.


For $100 or less, what is your favorite wine to offer guests that really represents what you are trying to achieve in your wine program? 

David: Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas. My true love is French wine, but my wine list is all-American, so I love it when I can find an American wine that has French flair. This Rhone blend is halfway between in style, with some of the depth and complexity of the Old World, and the full expressive fruit of the New World. Guests love it, and usually want me to write down the name for them so they can ask for it again at restaurants and retailers.

Andy: I’m all about the Riesling. I especially love that it is the most poorly understood varietal and it’s pretty easy to confound the expectations of the humans with it. It doesn’t hurt that so long as you tailor the sugar level to the guest properly they will usually fall in love with it. For a while this summer I was pouring the 2009 Pfeffingen, Herrenberg “M” Grosses Gewächs on everyone: “Oh, you like Sancerre? Here, try this Riesling.” “Do I have any Chablis? Yep, it’s called Riesling.” “You like Opus One? You should totally try this Riesling.”

Jill: 2007 Paolo Bea “San Valentino” – it’s a blend of mostly Sagrantino with some Sangiovese and a little Montepulciano from a great producer. Meaty, earthy and darkly fruity, and the story behind the wine is fantastic.  Wines from Umbria are often overlooked in favor of Tuscany and Piemonte, but again, a lesser known gem from a stellar winemaker for just $75.  When the guest ends up loving this wine, I graduate them to the 2005 Bea Pagliaro Secco.  Mind. Blown.


If you had to vote for one wine region for the next four years, what region would you select and why?

Julie: Champagne.  It goes with everything and you can get still reds and whites if you tire of bubbles.

Matthew: Champagne!

David: I'm a sucker for Champagne.

Jill: Loire.  People love it or hate it.  I am a lover of the Loire. I spent several weeks last summer riding my bike through the region and my affection blossomed into a full on obsession. Every kind of wine you might want is produced there: sparkling, dry, sweet, dessert, red, white, rose…Plus, I’ve always had a predilection for Cabernet Franc. I adore it. Unabashedly. A lot of somms might hate on Argentinean Malbec, but give someone Cot from Xavier Weisskopf, and the scorn turns to geeky pleasure.

Andy: The Ruwer. Even amongst Riesling nerds it gets over looked too often. Probably because it’s harder to do things right in that valley. The river is really just a tinkle and offers little to no climatic love to the vines, the wines can easily be under-ripe and there are only a few sites that most people know about. And even the good sites in great vintages can be super bitchy for several years before they give up the goods. When they do though, look out. Seriously, I drink Eitelsbacher Karthauserhofberg like it’s my job. 


What’s your guilty pleasure when it comes to drinking?

Matthew: Amaretto…yup, maybe the least manly drink out there. I'm hooked on Lazzaroni Amaretto. They infuse almond macaroons into the liqueur, which basically makes it a full dessert in a glass.

John: Crown Royal. Citadelle Gin. Mexican Beer. 

Jill: Cheap, industrial American lager from a can.  Bud Light, PBR, Coors…just no Miller Lite please.  A girl has to have some standards.

Andy: I never feel guilty about drinking.


What changes are you excited about or planning in your beverage program for Fall and Winter?

David: The weather in DC has just started to turn cool, and the fall harvest fruits and vegetables are coming in. The flavors in our cocktails change from an accent on citrus and cool mint, to the warmer profile of apple, pomegranate, and brown spices. As for wines, our list doesn't change much, other than trending towards featuring fuller whites and reds. As we move beyond the fresh summer shellfish towards fall fin fish, Chardonnays usually win out over Sauvignon Blanc. We also get a bit of fresh game available this time of year, so spicy deep reds dominate over the lighter style Pinot Noirs. 

Matthew: A fine dining restaurant is a fairly large ship that takes some time to turn, but our casual, bistro-style restaurant has two chalkboards that we use to feature wines and beers that are seasonal (or just exciting).  They allow us to keep the program nimble and bring in small lots of things to serve “While It’s Open”.  Having been inspired by the success of ‘Summer of Riesling’, we’ve started to use one of the chalkboards in the bistro to feature one grape (or blend) at a time.

Jill: Officially as the Summer of Riesling (and unofficially as the summer of rosé), draws to a close, I would like to see some embracing of the Autumn of Chenin Blanc. 


What is the “talk of the town” in the DC Area as far as drinking and dining is concerned- any unique trends or fads?

Julie: In Maryland, corkage just became legal for most places, so that’s a big thing. A lot of guests want to bring in their own wines. We haven’t allowed it yet because the nature of our license would require a heavy fee to change, but we will revisit it once our license is up for renewal. Like everywhere else, dining trends are headed toward the more rustic, nose-to-tail, and emphasis on local with a less-refined delivery. Restaurants need the repeat business and if you’re pegged as a “special-occasion” place, your chance of repeat diners dwindles. 

John: I like to live in a vacuum when it comes to that stuff. Batched cocktails seem to be a thing, I like my keg wines right now. 

Andy: A while back wine bars became the new tapas joints in DC. Then food trucks became the new wine bar. Currently tacquerias are becoming the new food truck and it looks like over-priced, over-hyped, sandwich shops are about to become the new tacqueria.

I’m looking forward to the future trend of great restaurants with great wine lists where you can eat delicious food that isn’t deconstructed, you’re never served a course that uses the word “air” to describe an ingredient, nothing is “sautéed” with liquid nitrogen and food is actually prepared classically and competently. That would be a super-fun trend in dining. I doubt it’ll catch on though.


Andrew McNamara and Eric Crane stroll into your place near closing on a Thursday evening. Where do you head for drinks after work?

Jill: Depends on how fancy you’re feeling. If ya’ll were in the mood for some wine, I’d call up one of my friends who are somms at fancy hotel restaurants like Michael Scaffidi at the Jefferson or Brent Kroll at Adour at the St. Regis…bars at both those places are quiet and they are bound to have something good open to share.  If you’re in the mood for cocktails, the Passenger is a good bet (for both being open and good drinks).  Plus they have Fernet on tap.  Which is like Sommelier catnip.

Andy: McNamara’s a punk. I’d tell him to meet us at The Fireplace and then ditch him and take Eric to Old Ebbitt Grill. It’s old school and open late. We’d eat half priced raw bar and drink Jameson’s and DC Brau. After fueling up we could go to The Passenger and drink Fernet on tap. Seriously. It’s on tap. No, seriously.

P.S. I actually love McNamara, but I would make him buy.


Being in DC (and without naming names), what are some of the more unique customer requests or security measures you’ve seen as far as wine, beer, or spirits are concerned?

David: Our staff had to sleep in the restaurant on the night before President Obama's first inauguration, since we were in the high-security zone surrounding Capitol Hill.  The neighborhood was in lock down, so we wouldn't have been able to get to work otherwise.  We are the closest restaurant to the Senate side of the Capitol, so if you ever want to know what your Senator drinks, I can give you the lowdown.

John: 20 or so years ago, I heard the quote “don’t ask me if I want another drink, it brings attention to my drinking.” Also: “In the event of gunplay…where do you retreat to.” Same restaurant, different scenarios. 

Julie: My Chef’s favorite bar in DC has a baseball bat behind the bar they bring out and tap on the counter if anyone dares to order a “Red-Headed ***,” a “Blow Job” or “Surfer on Acid.”

Matthew: We’ve all gotten used to serving lots of politicians, judges and international business people, but one of my most memorable experiences was when one of our regulars was entertaining a group of Chinese businessmen. They ordered a beautiful (and expensive) bottle of Bordeaux and one of the guests requested a bottle of Coca-Cola to accompany his wine.


What are the most (and least) important parts of wine service in your opinion?

Matthew: The most important part of wine service is the “follow-up”.  It’s a great thing to put a cool or expensive bottle on the table, but checking back in to be sure that the guests feel that the “right” bottle is on the table is most important.  

David: The least important part is coming up with parings.  People think that there are magical combinations of food and wine that are perfection.  Most people just want the food they like with the wine they like, and that's a good enough pairing for them.

Julie: Making the guest your friend is really important. You have to become their trusted advisor so they don’t see you as the snobby somm that wants to pillage their pocketbooks. There are very few restaurants in Baltimore with dedicated sommeliers so what I’ve learned about our market is that most are slightly defensive about their "lack of wine knowledge" but are still afraid to ask questions or to take advice from us. So I go in with a very friendly, almost mother-hen-ish way to try to coax them into letting me help them. Gain their trust. Also, you must taste the wines. This is the first restaurant I’ve worked in where we taste every bottle we open. Although this may be slightly off-putting to the guest, how on Earth can we recommend something if we haven’t tasted it and how can we expand our knowledge without tasting the wines? I’m so thankful to Michael Mina and Rajat Parr for making that step absolutely mandatory in our restaurants.

Least important is education. As an educator this is painful for me to say but telling a story and making the wine sexy sells the wine way better than spouting off the wine’s cepage or elevage. Some guests want to know that geeky stuff, but the danger of sniffing those guests out is that they never want you to leave their table.  

Jill: Be friendly and approachable. I sell more wine on personality and enthusiasm than on anything else. I love wine. I want people to drink it and have a good time. Pretention or worrying about how much they are going to spend are not factors. Also important? To be honest, direct, and if you make a mistake, to acknowledge it, apologize and move on without it affecting anything else; always making sure your stemware is clean & polished and KNOWING HOW TO PRONOUNCE NAMES – it doesn’t take much time to learn correct pronounciations. It subtly demonstrates knowledge and familiarity.

Andy: Least important is the Sommelier’s agenda. I know I said earlier that I like pushing Riesling and I’m on a hey-everybody-drink-more-Syrah kick, but only when those items serve the guests and their desires. It’s great that I really think you’d like Riesling, but if you aren’t adventurous, don’t believe me, just want a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, thank you or whatever then it’s on me to make your wish come true. Any type of service is not, never has been and never will be about me.


What is your favorite non-wine part of your beverage program?

David: It's no secret that I love all kinds of whiskey.  We have an all-American wine list, so I'd like to move towards featuring some really fabulous American whiskeys as a complement.

John: Cocktails. I work for Todd Thrasher. So cocktails, even though they are all wine-based. 

Jill: Wha? Non-wine?

Julie: The sake at Pabu! Pabu is the Japanese izakaya-style restaurant by Michael Mina and Ken Tominaga – it’s still in the Four Seasons and it’s our sister property. Even though I don’t technically work for Pabu, because it’s under the same roof I’m going to say the sake at Pabu. Amazing list of premium sake that is absolutely perfect with the fresh sashimi, sushi and robata-grilled meats. 


What’s the most successful non-traditional food and wine paring you have with your current menu?

John: Pommes Aligot with housemade Kielbasa and Priorat. Sums up my heritage and what I like to drink in one. 

David: With our foie gras, we serve Kluge Cru, a vin du mistelle. They take unfermented Chardonnay juice and add Chardonnay brandy to it, and then age it in Bourbon barrels. It is lightly sweet with nice acidity to balance it out, and the oak just adds spice without being obvious.

Julie: Our Rhubarb dessert (fromage blanc panna cotta, strawberry shortcake, poached rhubarb, freshly sliced strawberries, and rhubarb sorbet) with Domaine la Tour Vielle Banyuls. Really? Banyuls with something that isn’t chocolate? Well what is Banyuls? Grenache! And what is the first fruit that comes barreling out of a glass of Grenache? Strawberry! We originally considered a lighter white dessert wine – perhaps an Auslese from the Ürziger Würzgarten but I decided to get crazy and try it with the Banyuls. Oh. My. Heaven. And people love it.

Andy: A grapefruit tart with Dolin Blanc Vermouth.

Matthew: Pretty often I'll sub a dry cider (like that local Foggy Ridge) as a first course tasting menu pairing. It brings all of that clean malic tartness (I call it a "reset button" for the guests palate after a long day and before a long meal) but keeps one foot in the tradition of starting with bubbles. 


What are some local spots that excite you for a bite to eat and a glass of wine?

Andy: In the city, I love Estadio. It’s an all Spanish list and the food is killer. Michel Richard’s Central is ridiculous, has one of my favorite wine lists in the city and a tuna burger that should be illegal. It’s also home to my favorite maitre’d/sommelier Mr. David Hale.

It’s rare that I cross the ocean and go to Virginia, but when I do, Restaurant Eve and Society Fair in Old Town are essential stops. If they opened them in the city I would take up residence.

Don’t drink in Maryland. Ever. Unless you happen to score one of the very rare and coveted invites to the Gentlemen’s Tasting Club of Olney (http://www.missmollysmeatrub.com/about/gtc.htm ) in which case you should make arrangements for a driver and a belly sling.

Jill Zimorski

Andy Myers

John Wabeck

Julie Dalton

Matthew Carroll

David Denton